While I often observe small birds chasing larger birds from their territory or nesting site, one bird, in my opinion, tops the list as the most aggressive at defending its space.

Recently, I saw one of these small birds in flight, pulling feathers from the back of an immature red-tailed hawk as it chased the intruder away from its nest. This aggressor is a small perching bird known as the Eastern kingbird.

Eastern kingbirds are slightly larger than a common house sparrow with grey back and wing plumage, a white chest and a black head with a distinctive white-tipped tail. While rarely visible, the kingbird was appropriately named for the yellow and red crown on its head that is displayed when attempting to frighten away an intruder.

Summering in the Bitterroot, these birds can be found in most of the pasture landscapes preferring grassland close to wetlands or riparian habitat. These habitats attract abundant insect populations that make up a large portion of the kingbird’s diet.

On Teller, kingbirds frequently use hawthorn trees for nesting sites and while eggs are incubating, the male can often be seen perching on a hawthorn branch poised to chase off any avian enemy.

Kingbirds don’t limit their attacks to just birds, as I have been under siege a time or two when I broke the barrier of a nesting territory only to have an adult kingbird swoop at me, all the time sounding off a repetitious rattle chirping sound.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, kingbirds have a longer than usual nesting and young rearing period than most songbirds which could be the reason they typically have only one nesting attempt per year.

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Many times, you will find the kingbird perched on a mullein stalk waiting to capture the next flying insect. These birds prefer larger insects such as grasshoppers or dragonflies which, after they catch, they usually return to a perching site to begin dismembering the insect for easy consumption.

If you get a chance to watch a kingbird pursue a flying insect, it is quite a show of aerial acrobatics that usually ends with a successful catch. Primarily insectivores, kingbirds will switch their diet to seeds and berries in the fall in preparation for a long migration to South America. There they spend the winter targeting insects nuts and berries, building up protein reserves for the long migration back the Bitterroot in the spring.

From a conservation perspective, the North American Breeding Bird survey reveals a decline in kingbird numbers over the last 40 years, which is thought to be directly linked to habitat loss and insecticides.

However, the kingbird is a common sight in the Bitterroot and one of Teller’s common birds. Although they generally do not congregate in flocks, any trip out on Teller or Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge will surely produce a pair or two of this aggressive little bird.

It’s western counterpart, the western kingbird, has similar habitat preferences but can tolerate more arid sagebrush habitats. Both species have similar feeding and territorial defense behaviors and the western kingbird really only differs by having a yellow belly rather than the white on the eastern species. In certain areas of Montana, both species exist during the breeding months, but by far, the eastern species is more common in the Bitterroot.

So next time you’re enjoying a summer walk in the Bitterroot, keep a sharp eye out for this small, handsome member of the flycatcher family.

Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge Executive Director has 35 plus years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with the community. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at www.tellerwildlife.org.